Despite the fact that almost all contemporary audio production takes place in the digital domain, many of us still like to mix things up with vintage audio gear. Surely modern technology must have brought about improvements?
Or has the drive for profit in a competitive market caused modern manufacturers to cut costs and so lose some of the magic found in the best audio equipment from the golden era of analogue audio?
This month, we’ll examine the continuing allure of vintage mics and ask if they really were that special, or if we’re all listening with rose-tinted ear muffs. We’ll also discover if age itself is the key, or whether modern equivalents can provide similar quality, at half the price and with none of the hassles.
How Legends Were Born
Considering that the recording industry as we know it only really got started in the 1950s, it’s amazing how quickly the ‘vintage’ mystique developed. It was already underway in the 1970s, and by the 1980s studio professionals had gone vintage crazy. So what happened to make recording engineers and producers decide that the latest microphones weren’t necessarily the best?
The most obvious watershed was the widespread introduction of transistors during the mid 1960s. Until then thermionic valves had ruled supreme, and many ‘golden eared’ audio pros regarded the transistor with disdain.
Quite soon transistors developed a reputation for poor sonic quality, but was this entirely justified? It’s important to remember that valves had already been around for a long time. Factories were making superb tubes, circuit designs had benefited from several decades of research and development, and the technology was mature and thoroughly understood. In other words, valve audio equipment had reached the point where it couldn’t get much better, and the standards of the time were often very high.
Nevertheless, manufacturers were understandably keen to introduce solid state electronics. Things could be made smaller, they were easier to power and far cheaper to manufacture. But solid state audio equipment was often rushed into the market place before it had been fully developed – a scenario that’s still depressingly familiar in the word of computers.
Everything you wanted to know about
It is the kind of legend from which legends spring: two young brothers, the mandolin player a fresh-faced veteran of two professional bands at 18, the guitar player a shy and professionally inexperienced 16 year-old, auditioning for Victor records, the largest and most successful record company in the world. Although they had recently split from Homer Sherrill's band, Bill and Earl Bolick still appeared to face the imposing Victor microphones as just a duet, and it was with mixed elation and apprehension that they mounted the stairs to the impromptu studio set up on the second floor of the Southern Radio Corporation Building on Tyron Street, in Charlotte, North Carolina, on a warm Tuesday in June, 1936.